Each time this passage comes up in the Lectionary (every three years), I am reminded again just how uncomfortable it makes me feel. I prefer to associate Jesus’ peace with the passage in John 14:27, often used at memorial services and funerals, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” I prefer the comfort and warm fuzzies alluded to by John and the stories in which Jesus reminds us that we are important to him even when we are not important to anyone else. I like the texts that remind us of the many paintings we see of Jesus with a calm, serene, loving smile.
Instead, we are dealing with this text, which comes immediately after Jesus comforts the crowd, calling them “little flock” (making us recall the imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd) and assuring them that it is God’s good pleasure to give them and us, the Kingdom of God. BUT Jesus turns around and says, “You think I have come to bring peace? Nope! Wrong assumption!” We have only been thinking all along that Jesus was a peace-maker, but the truth is that he warned us that he came to rend/cut families and situations into pieces–to issue a serious wake-up call we need to heed. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not the gospel of health, wealth, power and success. It is the gospel of the cross, the gospel of piece-making. Author Flannery O’Conner, whose writing I was introduced to in seminary has said, “What people do not realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket [warm and cozy], when of course it is the cross.” The cross is where Jesus is headed as he speaks his hard saying. Jesus was a piece-maker. Think back to the scene in the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old. He ditched his family to challenge the rabbis while his family spent three days frantically looking for him before they finally found him. When they scolded him for his behavior, he tossed back the comment, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Much later, at the age of thirty, Jesus leaves his family and his father’s carpentry business in order to begin his ministry. His mother and brothers come after him, but when Jesus is told that they are standing outside and want to see him, he points to his followers and says, “These are my mother and my brothers, those who hear the Word of God and do it.” OUCH, that smarts! In Luke 14:26, following today’s Scripture, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” What would James Dobson of Focus on the Family have to say about this one?
It wasn’t just Jesus’ own family that he cut into pieces; he broke up a bunch of others as well: James and John were in the fishing business with their father, Zebedee and Jesus came along and said, “Follow me,” and James and John left their father behind as he held the fishing nets in his hands. So, what is Jesus doing; piece-making or peace-making? This particular teaching of Jesus is like a slap up alongside of the head or a drenching with cold water in the face. Jesus didn’t gently ease into these harsh words. Why? Jesus did not hold back because he does not want us to hold back. Jesus begins by telling us that he came to start a fire on the earth–to set off a time bomb–to change everything, to turn everything right side up. He came to disrupt and confront. Fire is a biblical metaphor for cleansing, refining and purifying. Jesus came to bring fire to the earth so that God’s people might once again be fruitful. But Jesus does not stop there. He promises there will be no peace, only division. Don’t you wish you could have been sitting in the crowd, hearing Jesus speak, so that you could have raised your hand and said, “Excuse me. Didn’t you promise to give us your peace? Didn’t the angels promise peace among those whom you favor (in the Christmas account)? I came for the peace that passes all understanding.”
Jesus knew and still knows that wherever we go and whatever we do, we are constantly confronted–even in our own homes. Family is where we want to believe we can find a source of community, a sense of belonging, and now we are hearing that if we allow the fire of Christ’s love to cleanse us, we will be divided. The division goes beyond my University of Michigan friends cheering against the opposition: Michigan State University. The division Jesus speaks about is not what team color to wear, but whether we are willing to put on Christ, whether we will walk the way of the cross or the way of the world.
The peace of God is not calmness or contentment or even experiencing the absence of conflict. God’s peace is about wholeness, being at one with God, being at one with God’s will for us–even if that means dying in exile like John on the island of Patmos–or being crucified upside down in Rome like the legend tells us Peer died. It is piece-making that leads to peace-making. We know it is not just our biological families that become divided. Paul’s letter to the church of Corinth was written in large part because of the division that church was facing. Churches today find themselves midst controversial division and strife. Why did Jesus tell the people there will be division? To warn us? To assure us? To prepare us? Yes, yes and yes! Jesus did not stop at telling us that there would be conflict and division. He went on to say that we need to pay attention to what is going on around us–to work out our conflicts.
We are called to feel the heat of the world, and like Moses, to stand before the Pharoahs of our day: injustice, hatred, poverty–and work to free God’s people for God’s glory.
Jesus spoke of facing a baptism, of being purged, drowned to sin, in order to create a new family–the church! The Body of Christ! Under the waters of baptism, we have been drowned into the Church, torn into pieces and washed into the new family of God.
In the early church and in some Christian churches of Africa today, baptismal fonts were shaped like a coffin so that the little child to be baptized can be brought into the worship center (or) carried in a coffin, to be reborn into the new life of Christ and the church in baptism.
It is our obligation as Christians today to battle divisiveness that threatens to rip through the Christian community and to set us at odds with one another–tobecome stronger and more united as we all seek the same goal, living to bring God all the glory and honor. I have a friend who always signs her notes, “God’s peace be with you. May we know the peace of which Paul reminds us: “Keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”